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Marco’s Pizza franchisee earns honors in march to rapid growth

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Columbia native Joe Walker credits his military background as important to building a Marco’s Pizza franchise operation that over the past 3½ years has opened 17 stores across South Carolina and in Wilmington, N.C., and hired 500 employees.

His company is on track to record more than $15 million in sales in 2016, Walker said. At 33, Walker runs one of the top-selling franchise operations in the Toledo, Ohio-based restaurant chain.

Columbia native Joe Walker runs one of the top-selling franchises in the Marco's Pizza chain. (Photo/Jeff Amberg Photo)Success in building a fast-growing franchise in the highly competitive $38.5 billion pizza restaurant industry has led to Walker recently being named 2016 South Carolina Veteran Small Business Person of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration and the S.C. Chamber of Commerce.

Selling pizzas wasn’t on Walker’s mind when he graduated in 2004 from Wofford College. Instead he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, assigned to the Third Infantry Division headquartered at Fort Stewart, Ga.

A year later Walker’s platoon was engaged in bloody, door-to-door urban combat in Iraq. Out of 36 soldiers in his unit, six died and 16 soldiers, including himself, were wounded, Walker said

After college and the Army, Walker thought he would enter the family business, which was involved in cotton merchandising and commercial development. However, the business was sold before he could join.

So Walker went to work in September 2008 for the commercial real estate firm NAI Avant. “It put me in front of tenants and companies that were growing” as South Carolina and the nation slipped into the economic depths of the Great Recession, Walker said.

One of those tenants was Marco’s. Walker was impressed and went to work putting together a plan to start a franchise operation in the Midlands.

Walker, though, needed an investor who could provide the capital needed to start the business. Just the cost of opening a new store totals $350,000 to $400,000, Walker said, adding that he tapped his experience in commercial real estate and reached out to Harold Tuma, of Lexington, an investor he had worked with at NAI Avant.

“Without hesitation, he said yes. ‘Let’s do it,’” Walker said.

Walker said Marco’s, which is based in Toledo, Ohio, attributes the brand’s growth to the fact that it pizzas consist of fresh never-frozen dough made daily on site, a proprietary cheese blend that is fresh never-frozen and a secret pizza sauce recipe.

Marco’s said in a press release that it has more than 700 stores and expects to have a total of 1,000 outlets. The company estimates that it averages opening a new store every third day.

Walker now is leading Marco’s expansion into Virginia with plans to introduce six new locations, creating more than 150 jobs in the state. Targeted development markets in Virginia include Ironbridge, Charlottesville and Richmond. Currently there is one lease signed in Mechanicsville.

One of the major challenges of running a fast-growing business is finding the right people, Walker said. People, he said, are motivated by personal pride and money.

Praise and a pat on the back are important to some workers, Walker said. As far as monetary rewards, stores offer profit-sharing plans, he added. But what’s key is making sure everyone from the driver who delivers the pizza to the store manager understands their role in selling Marco’s pizzas.

“What we do well as a company, in my opinion, is instill a sense of ownership at the lowest level,” Walker said. “By lowest, I don’t mean lowest-ranking because none of us can complete our mission without the privates. They are just as important as the captains and lieutenant colonels.”

Reach Chuck Crumbo at 803-726-7542.

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